Guelph researcher turning ‘Back to the Future’ fuel into reality

Engineer Animesh Dutta is researching how to turn food waste into bio-products

By Clare Bonnyman, CBC News Posted: Aug 21, 2017

Using food waste as fuel, like in this scene from 1989’s Back to the Future 2, is something that could become real, thanks to University of Guelph researcher Animesh Dutta. (UNIVERSAL PICTURES)

Professor Animesh Dutta has never seen the movie Back to The Future, but his latest project bears a striking resemblance to the film.

The University of Guelph engineer is finding a way to turn food waste into fuel.

“Waste is a resource waiting for an opportunity,” Dutta told CBC News.

Much like the Delorean featured in the 1985 film — in which Doc has to retrofit his time machine with a Mr. Fusion generator when he’s in the year 2015 in order to convert household waste into fuel — Dutta’s team is trying to find a way to turn the mass amounts of agri-food waste produced in Ontario into products to replace carbon, natural gas and petroleum.

The research was one of five U of G projects to receive more than $630,000 in federal funds this summer, as part of the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

Closing the circle

“Right now we have a large food processing industry,” Dutta said.

In cases of grapefruit or orange juice, the fruit is pulverized to extract juice, but the fibers and peel remain.

‘It’s a kind of burden for the farmers, for the growers.’– Professor Animesh Dutta, University of Guelph

“Somebody can use that, and produce some bio-product,” he said. “Or you have greenhouse tomato vines or cucumber stems.”

The cost to take these products away for compost can also incur shipping fees for producers.

“It’s a kind of burden for the farmers, for the growers,” Dutta said.

Engineering professor Animesh Dutta is working to turn yard waste into fuel for the future. (University of Guelph)

The research is a response to Ontario Bill 151, the Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act, which aims to divert waste and find new, greener ways to use it.

“What we are proposing, is we use that resource to produce some carbon or coal and they can use that for heating their greenhouse, or nutrient recovery,” he said. “It’s closing the loop.”

Fuel for farmers

This kind of process would reduce the cost farmers have to pay to remove waste, but also reduce the cost of the resources they purchase.

“If you can recover waste,” Dutta said, “you can reduce the cost of energy or reduce resources. Farmers save money.”

It can also save money for municipalities, when it comes to collecting and dumping waste.

The wide scope of the project is what makes it special in the eyes of the government.

“Most of the bio industry, they are putting out only one product,” Dutta said.

The U of G project focuses on developing a variety of products from agri-waste, rather than just one.

“We are focusing to maximize the various product streams,” he said. “Maximizing the economic output. You don’t see that kind of research right now in Canada.”

Dutta and professor Emily Chiang are looking for a variety of uses to turn agri-food waste into bio-products. (University of Guelph)

A drier kind of future

In the film, Doc uses household waste, including beer, to fuel his time machine. But Dutta said the mositure content in household waste is a challenge right now.

Food waste has up to 80 or 90 per cent water in it.

“If we were to dry it, it would take a lot of energy to clean it up,” he said.

But the current process being studied, would allow it to “cook under water” he said, making it unnecessary to dry it out, and more energy-effective for the real world.

“One of the challenges with waste, is the moisture, you cannot burn it you can’t do anything,” he said.

Dutta said the federal funding is bringing his research team one step closer to being able to run the Delorean time machine — now it’s up to someone else to figure out how to make it fly through time.

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